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International Relations Theories: Sovereignty and War Essay

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Updated: Jun 5th, 2020

There are numerous schools of thought that dominate discourse in international relations. These include realism, idealism, social construction and regime theory. Each of these theories proposes a set of unique principles with regards to international relations. It is imperative to note that assumptions held herein are discordant. For instance, realists believe that countries are in a constant state of conflict. This assumption is based on the notion that societies are inherently selfish and confrontational. Idealists oppose this view and instead assert that conflict is as a result of flawed sociopolitical system. Social constructionists oppose these views and explain that conflict is socially constructed. These are just some of the philosophical variations that form the basic tenets of international relations, and are evaluated against the concepts of sovereignty and war.

Realism seems to be the most popular theory of international relations. Popular theorists such as E. H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and Hedley Bull have made significant contributions towards the development of the theory of realism in international relations. Realists are primarily concerned with a countries ability to maximize security as well as control resources and power. Realists also propose that states attain sovereignty by supplanting other states. To attain sovereignty, countries have to reinforce protective measures aimed at eliminating influence from external forces.

This implies that the attainment of absolute sovereignty by a given country leaves other countries feeling insecure (Baylis, Smith and Owens 34, 35). Realists further assert that war is hastened by lack of a mediator. The need for arbitration arises due to the fact that disputes might arise as a result of the searh for sovereignty. This phenomenon is popularly referred to as structural anarchy and in realist view, leads to international security dilemma. In view of this, conflict and the inevitable war are perceived as ordinary to international relations, rather than outcomes. This also implies that sociopolitical systems are naturally flawed and inclined to war.

Realists also perceive nationhood and the need to satisfy national interests as essential towards the attainment of sovereignty. Nations seek to survive in a highly competitive environment. The greed for power and control of international resources is primarily driven by the need to serve a nation’s national interests. Realists assert that national interests vary depending on prevailing conditions. While similar national interests are likely to lead to peace, dissimilar interests are likely to aggravate conflict between nations.

Unlike realists, idealists propose Devine morals as the primary motivation for the attainment of constructive international relations. Idealists argue that conflict and war are evil, futile and retrogressive. Furthermore, war is the outcome of a flawed sociopolitical system and thus ought to be avoided at all cost. Famous idealists such as William Ewart Gladstone and Woodrow Wilson believe in the philosophy of rewards and punishments. As such, nations as well as individuals have the obligation to adhere to Devine norms. Adherence to Devine norms not only alleviates human suffering but also eliminates international conflict, thus helping nations avoid war (Kennedy 36).

Realists assert that satisfying a nation’s self interest leads to the attainment of national security. Thus, nations are naturally self seeking entities that aggravate international conflict and war for the attainment of national security. Idealists oppose this and assert that national interests ought to facilitate the attainment of international harmony and peace. Works of famous idealists such as the former United States president Woodrow Wilson suggest that national interests ought to be pursued not only for the avoidance of conflict but also for the promotion of international peace and harmony. For instance, many countries have varied national interests such poverty, hunger disease, economic uncertainties and exploitation of international trade opportunities. In developing solutions for these challenges, nations have the autonomy to make choices.

This implies that idealists acknowledge that nations exist as sovereign entities, and that no external force has the right to interfere with a nation’s decision making process. However, in making decisions, states ought to realize that the effects of those choices are felt beyond national borders. Additionally, Woodrow Wilson and other idealists assert that the pursuit of national interests ought to be for the benefit of all. As such, nations are obliged to cooperate with each other if conflict and war are to be avoided.

Both realists and idealists seem to overlook important elements such as class and wealth that shape international relations. Such shortcomings have led to the development of other theories, such as Marxism. Marxists reject most of the assumptions made by realists and idealists and instead proposes that economic and material gains determine international relations. Marxists assert that economic gains supersede other concerns and are the main driving force in determining the nature of international relations. Marxists further assert that uneven distribution of resources and power further compounds the situation. As a result, some nations gain more economic advantage leading to capitalism and a state of dependency. Immanuel Wallerstein, one of the most vocal proponents of Marxism, asserts that inequality in distribution of resources leads to class based categorization of countries (Shimko 29). Sovereignty depends on a nation’s capital power and economic domination. Competition for economic resources is likely to aggravate conflict which at times has led to war. Peace is attained if nations share economic interests.

While idealists and realists view conflict and anarchy as natural occurrences, social constructivists purport that conflict and sovereignty are relative and somewhat abstract notions. It is imperative to note that social construction is not an original theory of international relations. It is, however, a social theory used by social constructivists in efforts to explain the relativity of conditions influencing international relations. Social constructivists such as Alexander Wendt argue that there exists ‘ideational forces’ that influence how nations act with regards to international relations. By ideational forces social constructivists refer to socially constructed notions about the state of international affairs. Like realists, social constructivists argue that societies are inherently competitive and confrontational. As such, conflict is part of the global sociopolitical system. However, unlike realists and idealist, social constructivists believe that anarchy, war and conflict are socially constructed phenomena emanating from notions held with regards ton interstate interactions (Searle 37 – 41). Alexander Wendt argues that sociopolitical systems are based on two broad ideas namely anarchy and peace. If a nation’s sociopolitical system is based on anarchical ideals, then the nation is likely to take war as the only means of survival. In relating with other countries, such nations are likely to be confrontational.

The theories highlighted above largely tend to hold opposing views. There are, however, other hybrid theories that exist such as the regime theory. The primary concern for regime theorists is that international organizations, other than internal governmental organizations, influence how states act. This implies that nations are actors in the global arena where international organizations write the script. While this is likely to precipitate a war, cooperation between states is unavoidable especially on issues such as trade, security and human rights. Such co-operation can be defined as a regime and is the bedrock of international relations. States are likely to be under the influence of competing regimes. Such a scenario might result to a crisis, which is likely to gradate to a full war if no concession is reached (Rittberger and Mayer 23). Regime theorists assume that absolute sovereignty is impossible to achieve since states act under the influence of such regimes.

Each country desires to attain sovereignty. However, this is impeded by overarching ideals that forms a country’s philosophical assumptions on international relations. For instance, a country whose philosophical ideals are based on realism is likely to perceive war as the only means through which sovereignty is attained. On the other hand, idealistic states are likely to be more cooperative with each other, since they perceive themselves as having a divinely inspired role of promoting global peace and harmony. While idealist states acknowledged independent decision making, choice made are cognizant of the welfare of other states. This minimizes conflict and the eventual war. States aligned to social constructionism are likely to conceive war and peace depending on the nature of interstate interactions. In view of these assertions, a nation’s interaction with others, herein referred to as international relations, is shaped by the prevailing philosophies regarding international relations. Such philosophies influence the process through which sovereignty is attained. In this process, war seems to be a mitigating factor.

Works Cited

Baylis, John, Steve Smith and Patricia Owens. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 2011. Print.

Kennedy, David. “What ‘W’ Owes to ‘WW’: President Bush May Not Even Know It, but He Can Trace His View of the World to Woodrow Wilson, Who Defined a Diplomatic Destiny for America That We Can’t Escape.” The Atlantic Monthly 295.2 (2005): 36. Print.

Rittberger, Volker and Peter Mayer. Regime Theory and International Relations. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995. Print.

Searle, John. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 1995. Print.

Shimko, Keith. International Relations: Perspectives and Controversies. Ontario: Cengage Learning. 2009. Print.

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